I love the classics. I read most of them decades ago. But I don’t think I can read those same books again with the same enthusiasm and eagerness I had for them years ago. And the reason is not because I have a shorter attention span than I had then. No. Whether it’s classic or contemporary, or even bestseller, I can’t seem to like to read any form of writing that slows me down.
In fact, I read ‘The Novel’ by James A. Michener two weeks ago and it fell into that category. The hardcover book by Random House, 9.3×6.3×1.7 inches and 446 pages long, was not an easy read. Not in the sense that the writer had used superfluous words and phrases, no. It was simply but loosely written. When I put the book down I thought that if edited, it could have been easily cut down to around 200 pages without changing the impact of the story on the reader. In many places in the book the writer had made extended references to scenes of overflowing drama, only to slow the process of reading. In many places in the book the writer was visible in the writing. In many places in the book I felt I was being lectured by the writer, and lectures, especially if long, are boring. You want to spend time absorbed in the story, feeling with the characters, laughing and crying with them.
Flabby writing or loose writing is any form of writing hat slows the reader down – anything that physically slows the reading process. Anything that stands in the way of the reader’s mind absorbing the meaning of the words as quickly as possible.
Tight writing on the other hand carries the reader along, at whatever length, with efficiency, with grace. The fewer the words the better.
However, tight writing is not short writing and short writing isn’t always tight. To give an example, I read the book ‘Dolly’ by Anita Brookner. Published by Random House, hardcover, a small book, 8.5x6x1.1 inches and 260 pages long, it was a hard book to read. Throughout the whole book I felt I was being preached to instead of being told a story. I felt I was being forced to trudge through by concepts. I was forced to reread, to pause to figure out what she meant. Even though she used simple words, the way she used those words to convey her thoughts felt unusual, complicated, and distracting, at least to me. Maybe because my tolerance for ‘time-wasters’ has also decreased over the years.
Perhaps the best way to explain the difference between the two forms of writing is given by William Brohaugh. He compares flabby writing and tight writing to pillow fighting versus hitting with a baseball bat, saying:
“The pillow, soft and fluffy and unshaped. The baseball bat, hard and compact and well defined. Pillow writing is flabby and boring and wastes time. It sounds unsure, even evasive. And worst of all it disrespects the reader- and disrespects the craft of writing itself.
Baseball-bat writing – tight writing- shows confidence, which in turn communicates authority. It is also memorable. Not to mention quotable.”